The modern art of match-making on behalf of the boxing prospect is one of the finest to master in the realm of the sweet science, demanding honesty, rigour and objective judgment.
The dilemma which its practitioners grapple with on a daily basis is a familiar one; achieving the right balance between risk and reward. Match your prospect too tough and you could set back his career, even damage it irreparably. Match your prospect too easy and he won’t learn anything of substance that will aid his development.
Individual strengths, weaknesses and rates of progression will vary from fighter to fighter, as they do for all of us, and these must also be factored into the matchmaker’s decision-making process. Any manner of unforeseen occurrences can strike at any given time, ranging from fraught negotiations to unexpected withdrawals. The spectre of money is rarely far away either. Truly, the modern boxing matchmaker does not have it easy.
I would nevertheless submit that there are certain absolute truths attached that can be applied to matchmaking in any discipline, not just boxing. Firstly, if your aim is to produce a better fighter, you should never be inhibited by the fear of losing. The fact of the matter is that there is an element of risk in every fight. A fighter and his team who cannot come to terms with his own mortality or accept his flaws are killing his potential for growth. If adversity or even the dreaded zero should strike, it need not be a death sentence on your career as long as you redefine it as an opportunity to learn and develop.
Secondly, matchmaking must by necessity be tough, within the framework of the individual fighter’s actual ability. Time is finite and given the brevity of the average boxing career must be utilised as efficiently as possible. So-called ‘tune-up fights’ and ‘confidence-builders’ are too often used to pad gaudy records which look impressive on paper, without adding anything of substance to the fighter’s arsenal. Usually these fighters are the ones who find out and get found out themselves the hard way when they take their first leap as a professional; jumping over a three foot wall, only to find that it has a ten foot drop on the way down.
In contrast, when matchmakers are brave and astute enough to buck this negative trend – no mean feat in an era where undefeated records are worshipped and massaged to the point of losing sensitivity – they and their fighters will almost always reap the rewards.
On September 8th, fast-rising heavyweight prospect, Filip Hrgovic, and his team will aim to prove this point when he faces his toughest test to date as a professional against still-dangerous Amir Mansour in a homecoming fight in his home-city of Zagreb, Croatia, for the WBC International Heavyweight title. Originally, Hrgovic was scheduled to take on Scotsman Gary Cornish who withdrew for medical reasons, leading to the announcement of Mansour as his replacement just over a week ago.
It is a bold move, as the American veteran promises to pose a much sterner test that Cornish, who was wiped out in the first round by Anthony Joshua in 2015 and outpointed by Sam Sexton last year in a British Heavyweight title clash. At forty-six-years-of-age, Mansour is old enough to be Hrgovic’s father, and though his last seven fights include two draws and two losses – the numbers are deceiving.
Mansour turned professional in 1997 but did not fight for nearly nine years between 2001 and 2010 due to serving time in prison and consequently is relatively fresh and well-conditioned for his age. His record of 16 knockouts from 23 wins as a professional attests to respectable power, but once again don’t let the numbers fool you; Mansour has dynamite in his fists.
Witness his flattening of durable journeyman Fred Kassi back in 2014: in a candidate for ‘knockout of the year’ a sickening Mansour right hook sent Kassi face first to the canvas, leaving him out cold for minutes. Former cruiserweight World champion and heavyweight contender, Steve Cunningham, also received a taste of Mansour’s power in their 2013 bout, Mansour’s first career defeat. Mansour put Cunningham down and nearly out twice in the fifth round, and only Cunningham’s incredible powers of recovery and veteran guile helped him to survive. Future World title challenger, Dominic Breazeale, enjoyed a six inch height advantage, but was unable to avoid Mansour’s heavy hands in their 2015 bout. He was decked hard in the third round and behind on all scorecards before digging himself out of trouble in the fifth round with an uppercut and hook combination that badly damaged Mansour’s jaw, resulting in a corner retirement.
Mansour’s two career draws came against contender Gerald Washington and highly-touted prospect Sergey Kuzmin in his last fight in which honours were shared on a technicality due to a third round head-clash. For the fight’s brief duration, Mansour was however giving a decent account of himself.
In sum, no-one has ever been able to truly handle Mansour to date. If Hrgovic can accomplish this, he will have made a big statement in what will be only his sixth professional contest.
It is, however, a measure of the confidence that his handlers in Sauerland Promotions have in their young charge and not without reason. Hrgovic enjoyed an extensive and decorated amateur career, winning bronze in the super-heavyweight category at the 2016 Olympics, where he ended up on the wrong end of a split-decision against eventual gold medallist, Tony Yoka, in the semi-finals. Prior to this, he captured gold in the European Championships and the AIBA Youth World Boxing Championships. While still an amateur, he sparred with high-ranking professional heavyweights such as David Haye and Kubrat Pulev, in sessions where he more than held his own. On top of this, Hrgovic fought thirty times without vest and headgear in the World Series of Boxing (WSB).
It all amounts to a resume which screams out ‘fast-track’ and that is exactly what has happened in his short professional career thus far. His first fight was against Raphael Zumbano Love, no world-beater by any means, but the Brazilian was hugely experienced with over fifty professional fights to his name and had shared the ring with some big names in the division. Hrgovic despatched Zumbano Love with ease in the first round.
Two other names appear on his resume which carry some weight considering how early the fights were made in his career: the UK’s Tom Little and Ireland’s Sean Turner, both decent domestic-level fighters. Little gave Hrgovic a decent test before being catching a right cross from hell and stopped on his feet. Afterwards, the beaten man praised Hrgovic’s skill level and predicted that he would win a World title. Against Turner, Hrgovic handily outboxed the Irishman but never came close to stopping him, going the eight-round distance for the first time. By way of comparison, fellow heavyweight prospect Nathan Gorman smashed Turner inside three rounds earlier this year.
In real-world boxing terms, Hrgovic is as advanced as a 5-0-0 professional fighter could hope to be, unless your name happens to be Vasyl Lomachenko. In terms of pure skill level, he probably already ranks among the top fifteen heavyweights in the world and, considering that he is only twenty-six-years-old, further improvement in this department appears to be a foregone conclusion.
Hrgovic’s combination punching, variety and technique are excellent. In terms of physical assets, at 6ft 6 inches tall, he has the stature to rival contemporary heavyweight giants and he carries decent – albeit not devastating – power. His chin has proved reliable throughout his amateur career, the WSB and so far in his professional career, though he has not had to take many if any flush shots from big-punching heavyweights. Mansour will surely be looking to put that to the test. Mansour demonstrated against Kuzmin that he still possesses decent speed and movement for a man of his age and, if they remain undimmed nine months on, should give Hrgovic something to think about.
For all of Mansour’s attributes – and there is no question that he will bringing some to the table that Hrgovic has not yet faced in the professional ranks – he is still the older, smaller man and he has already shown that he can be hurt and that he can be outboxed.
While the chapter has been written on Mansour, we are probably yet to see the best of Hrgovic. If he can get past Mansour in dominant fashion, he will already be knocking on the door of contender status in a heated-up heavyweight division. Showcasing some extra spite behind his punches and stopping the tough veteran would be no doubt be satisfying, but so would handily outboxing Mansour over ten rounds without taking any real punishment in return.
Anything can of course happen in boxing, but if Hrgovic’s matchmakers have calculated correctly – and I believe that they have – either is a plausible outcome on 8th September.
Article by: Paul Lam
Follow Paul on Twitter at: @PaulTheWallLam